Published by EH.NET (November 2000)

Susannah Handley. Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution. Baltimore:

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 192 pp. Notes and index. $29.95

(cloth), ISBN 0-8018-6325-2.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by John K. Smith, Jr., Lehigh University.

Nylon Reviewed

Handley takes on the task of incorporating synthetic fibers into fashion

history. The major contribution of the book is that it attempts to connect

the entire chain of textile processing and marketing from fibers to fashions.

The author is most comfortable when discussing the world of fashion designers;

at times, the narrative reads like a journalist’s report on a fashion show.

Following the fashion magazine format, the book includes over two hundred

mostly color photographs, making it suitable for any coffee table. The first

two chapters retell the pre-World War II histories of rayon and nylon, the

first man-made textile fibers. Her treatment of rayon is rather superficial,

while the chapter on nylon is quite thorough.

She really hits her stride in the third chapter where synthetic fibers, nylon,

acrylic, and polyester, in the 1950s are discussed. After the war synthetic

fibers benefited from a convenience craze. Synthetics offered to liberate

women from the drudgery of ironing. In the 1960s young designers in England

discovered synthetics as a medium for making outrageous clothing intended to

shock the stodgy establishment. The development of the boutique, especially

in London, allowed fashion entrepreneurs like Mary Quant to sell directly to

their clientele, eliminating the necessity of finding a buyer for their

designs. By the late 1960s, however, American youth had come to see synthetics

as boring at best, as evidenced in the famous remark in the film The Graduate,

and toxic and polluting at worst. Yet, the author attributes the souring of

the public on polyester, which had become the dominant synthetic fiber, on a

new emphasis on comfort and the mass production attitudes of fiber producers.

After 1975, as American turned against disco, it also discarded its

double-knit polyester leisure suits. The decade-long cultural exile of

synthetics began to end in the mid-1980s. Madonna’s provocative attire

signaled another rebellion against staid conventions. The fad for fitness took

spandex garments out of the gym and into the street. The first spandex

leggings were marketed in London in 1986. Finally, Japanese designers now saw

synthetics as avante garde, in the same way that young British designers had

done in the 1960s. Japanese fiber makers also discovered how to make

microfibers that finally allowed synthetics to be as comfortable to wear as

natural fibers.

But what is it that determines what we wear? Is it comfort or is it fashion?

The author uses both explanations to account for trends in clothing without

offering much in the way of supporting evidence. It also would have been nice

to have had some tables on fiber use. Data from the Statistical Abstract of

the United States indicates that polyester took away market share from cotton

until 1975. For the next decade market shares were relatively stable. Then,

after 1985 cotton began to make significant gains in market share. In the past

few years stability has returned with about equal consumption of cotton and


Overall, the books succeeds as a history of the fashion industry and its

complex chain of production from chemical companies making fibers to fabric

designers to fashion designers to brand named mass produced fashions.

John Smith is working on technological innovation in the chemical industry.

His latest publication is “Turning silk purses into sows’ ears: environmental

history and the chemical industry,” Enterprise & Society (forthcoming).